02 March, 2007

Taxi!

After my own experiences in the driver's seat of one of Metro Taxi's vehicles, this story about the failures of cabbies fails to surprise me.
The disabled Metro State art student got a two-hour runaround from Metro Taxi on Tuesday, when all she wanted was a short ride to her apartment about a mile and a half from campus.

"I fight every day," said [Psalm] Shaw, 34, who has used a wheelchair or crutches since being hit by a truck nine years ago. "It used to take me seven minutes to get to school. Now it's one to two hours each way."

She said cabs sometimes fail to arrive, and she's sometimes still there when campus buildings have closed for the evening.

Whenever I had a cab strapped to my back, I had three rules for myself. One, accept every single fare that came onto my screen. Two, get to the fare as fast as possible, with or without regards to speed limits. Three, get the fare to destination as fast as possible, holding regards to speed limits and rarely without.

From my usual perch in central Aurora, I could get anywhere between Denver International Airport, Parker, and Cherry Creek in under 25 minutes if traffic was light. (And believe me, I know how to get around most of the heavy traffic spots.) And from my secondary perch at Colfax & Colorado Boulevard, I could reach all but the farthest edge of Commerce City in under 15 minutes and be downtown in much less time than that, plus hit Brighton in 35 minutes flat. (For those not in the area, and I know there's more than just a few of you judging by the SiteMeter statistics, here's a somewhat decent non-Java-based map to give some spacial references. Otherwise, I might as well be writing in Swahili for you out-of-towners. And I don't do dead languages.)

So someone waiting two hours for a cab to arrive is anathema to me. Even more so, waiting on the Auraria campus, which is so close to downtown that you can throw a rock and hit it, for two hours for a cab to arrive is so far beyond ludicrous as to defy definition.

So from an insider perspective, let me tell you exactly why something like this can happen. And, regretfully, it happens all over the city on a regular basis.

Taxi companies in Denver charge a flat lease per week. Not a percentage like most limousine and town car companies, or even New York's yellow cabs. And definitely not as a paid employee of the company as some fares continue to believe, but as independent contractors. Exactly what the lease rate is varies between the three companies, ranging from $400/week for owner-operators (Freedom) to $660/week for leasing independent contractors (Metro) with 6 days paid and Sundays free. The later was my category, and as it remains the highest populated category, I'll use that as a baseline.

Add in gas at an average of $25 per day and you have a mandatory $835 outlay per week. Anything additional that you feel you need to keep going, like food and soda/coffee and cigarettes, will simply tack more onto the accounts-payable side of the ledger. This is before you even start to make money for yourself, a.k.a profit. Take into consideration this study by Schaller Consulting about the average fares in major metropolitan areas, which cites the average fare here to be $13.23 and you have a need for at least 64 average-rate trips per week simply to stay ahead of the system.

Regretfully, most trips aren't average. Instead, a high portion of trips are under $10 on the meter, particularly those that start at neighborhood bars, grocery stores, hospitals, schools/colleges and shopping centers. With trips like these being the norm, it moves the trips-needed to 84/week. Add in U.S. Department of Transportation regulations setting time-behind-wheel at 10 consecutive hours per day or 80 hours maximum per week, and you have to do at least one trip per hour just to make lease and gas. Now, that may not seem like a lot, but with 497 other Metro cabs running the streets plus two other companies that you have even more direct competition against, and competing for fares with all the above, it becomes a bit of a stretch to run at that rate for too long, much less an entire week. So for the average hack just trying to keep their heads above water, these known short trips don't seem like a good investment of their time.

And so what happens when a driver gets a fare that they really don't want? Oh, there are many an option to select from, all of which I consider unethical behavior for a cabbie. (So how do I know about them? Dudes. Cab drivers love to talk. And I listen.) First, there's the short-meter, where you accept the call, wait five minutes, drop the flag, drive for two blocks, and then turn off the meter; suddenly, you're ready for another call. Second option is the computer reset: power down the computer for 15 seconds, which logs you out of the system, and then reboot and log back in with a clean screen. Third is the refuel trick, where you pull into a handy gas station and wait for 20 minutes so that when the dispatcher calls and asks where you are, you can blurt out a mechanical-based excuse and get it cleared from the screen. Fourth is the clueless trick, where you repeatedly say that you can't find the customer when you're not actually looking for them, and sometimes not even in the same city as the customer.

Which is where Psalm Shaw comes into the picture. Which is where most people trying to get a taxi come into the picture, come to think of it. Including me, on the rare occasions that I call for a cab. And I do have the connections. Many of them. They're just not always available.

So with all this in the news, insert Colorado State Representative Jerry Frangas of Denver to set into motion... a partial deregulation of the industry. (Insert ubiquitous .pdf warning.) And the deregulation is solely set upon the founding of new cab companies on the misguided notion that more taxis on the street will make for faster response times.

I wish I was so naive as to believe that would happen. (It really would be so nice. It'd almost be like believing in Santa Claus again.) Instead, what will happen is a much larger number of cab drivers ignoring the smaller fares to compete for the much smaller percentage of large fares within their limited available timeframe. More cabs sitting at DIA. More cabs sitting at the hotels downtown and the Tech Center. More cabs sitting someplace other than where the everyday person is waiting for a ride.

Oh, I admit that it makes sense from the viewpoint of the uninitiated. Make it easier for more cabs to be out on the streets, and they will scramble for every fare they can jam into their backseats, as that's where the competition is. Yet the problem isn't trying to get more people to start companies, as there have been many attempts to do so that haven't made it through the Public Utilities Commission. The problem is getting the companies that exist to make hard-and-fast rules regarding the treatment of fares.

The solution, in my view, is to copy parts of the most prominent and successful taxi system in the United States: New York City. (They can keep Hillary. But we'll take their cabs!) Initiating in Denver a form of the medallion system will give us, the regular public picking up the phone or raising our hands, the opportunity to levy solid complaints against drivers that routinely ignore, short-flag, cancel, delog/relog, or otherwise fail to pick up their fares.

As it stands now, the public has no real enforceable recourse against a flake cab driver. We contact the Public Utilities Commission and levy a complaint. Should they, in their infinite wisdom [/sarcasm], consider the complaint worth merit, the PUC turns it over to the companies with a slap-on-the-wrist fine. And when it gets to the company in question... it stops dead in it's tracks, with no notice given to the driver in question that there are complaints filed against them until they have reached an unacceptably high number. (When I was driving in 2002-2004, the unofficial number was 10 complaints over a 3 month span before official action was taken by the company.)

And that is where action needs to be taken. The companies have little reason to care about complaints, as there are always more drivers trying to break into the business. The PUC has little enforcement capabilities, as they are primarily there to authorize and approve of taxi companies, not drivers. Even the City and County of Denver, which has the authority to grant and revoke the driver's permits for the area, does little more than actually issue permits.

So what could be done about these specific drivers? It's simple. Every taxi in Metro's fleet, as well as the other companies' fleets, has a GPS transponder wired into their meters. Drivers can't turn them off without turning off their entire computer system, which means they can't get new fares. Should the first driver in Psalm Shaw's case on Wednesday actually actually attempted to pick her up, the transponder would show them wandering aimlessly within the confines of Auraria. (Note: Auraria's interior roadways are a rats-nest of dead-ends. It is entirely possible to hit enough literal roadblocks to make someone, even me, take 25 minutes to get through the campus to a specific location.) If the transponder record doesn't show that... There goes a complaint mark onto their records.

Any more than 3 complaints in 3 months, and they should receive a 30-day suspension. (If the company lets them drive in the meantime, major fine for the company.) Afterwards, the driver in question is placed on a 6 month probation period. Any additional complaint during that probation period against that driver results in revocation of their for-hire driving privileges. Period.

If the legislature wants to get tough on flake hacks, simply making it easier for more companies to open won't make a difference. Only by getting active on bad cabbies will help matters.

And hopefully, it will help matters soon enough for Psalm Shaw to get to and from campus in under 15 minutes again.

1 comment:

Robert said...

The reason to deregulate would be to create competition against the companies, not to improve service. Service to people like this lady would improve because there's somebody out there who wants to give her a ride for the $10 fare.

It's probably someone who owns their own vehicle, not somebody who has to rent from the cab company and thus has a huge nut to hit every week. It's the artificial wage-slavery of the regulated market that's screwing the service motive.

I considered hacking when I first got to Colorado Springs, but after interviewing at the cab company and seeing the regulatory cuddliness, gave up the idea. If there's no way to steal the boss' intellectual capital by studying their business model and then implementing it myself, then I don't want to play!